"This has been life changing."
That was what I said through teary eyes to Bruce Brereton - one of the co-hosts of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation's Celebration of Freedom Gala - as I hugged him goodnight on Saturday. I am rarely at a loss for words, but that phrase was all I could muster after two days of the most humbling, awe-inspiring events Don and I have ever experienced. I will try to organize my thoughts here, but let's all start off knowing that I will not even begin to capture the stories and the lives of the men I've met.
Don and I were honored beyond words to be invited to the Gala at the Ronald Reagan Library last weekend. The Gala is an opportunity to celebrate living MoH recipients, remember the ones who have passed on, honor people who have made a difference in the lives of soldiers and their families, and raise awareness for the incredible programs the Foundation has created.
On Friday night there was a small luau-themed welcome dinner for the MoH recipients and their families, as well as a few other guests. Gary Sinise, one of the co-hosts of the event, was there - but what amazed and thrilled me throughout the weekend was that HE was not the celebrity. He was not being mobbed by people wanting photos, he wasn't the key speaker, he was just Gary. The real celebrities were the 36 MoH recipients and a young Australian named Ben Roberts-Smith who recently received the Victoria Cross (the British Empire's version of the MoH). The dinner was a reunion of old friends - Ben was welcomed as a brother and us "young'uns" (as we were called more than a few times) were treated like family.
with Ben and Emme Roberts-Smith
At our table were MoH recipients Harvey Barnum, who retired as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Robert Ingram, who had to wait more than 30 years to receive his Medal because of...unbelievably...lost paperwork. We spent a good part of the evening talking to Robert Patterson - a MoH recipient who regaled us with crazy pick-up lines he used when trying to woo his "new bride" (of five years). Young bucks ain't got nothin' on this guy.
At the table next to us was George Sakato, who - at 95 - is the oldest living MoH recipient but his sharp mind and sharper wit would make you think he is 30 years younger. Pvt Sakato joined the Army to avoid the internment camps and distinguished himself during WWII by charging an enemy position and taking command after his squad leader was killed, but he was not even considered for the MoH due to societal prejudices until 50 years later (he received the MoH in 2000). My favorite photo of the weekend was the one I snapped of our friend Kyle and Pvt Sakato. Kyle is a young Asian-American soldier whose great-uncle fought in the same unit as Pvt Sakato, and as I saw them sitting with their heads close together in conversation I was moved by how much the world has changed, but how much the brotherhood of soldiers remains the same - even across generations.
with Harvey Barnum
Kyle and George Sakato
I vowed to myself (and to Don) that I would not be a dork over the weekend snapping photos of celebrities at every opportunity - because that is not what the weekend is about. For the most part - I was good. HOWEVER - literally 30 seconds after we walked in to the Reagan Library, Oscar winner Jon Voight came up behind us to talk to Don's boss - and he could NOT have been nicer. I pulled out my camera and we took a photo, then he said "check to make sure it is a good one!" and stood there happily while we checked to make sure our eyes were open and I didn't have a double chin, and then he casually strolled down the hall with us as if we were old friends who'd known each other for years.
with Jon Voight
There were lot of other celebrities (warning - if you are under the age of 40 most of these names might not ring a bell. There was a young woman sitting at our table who did not get ANY of my references to Jon Voight and his movies - it wasn't until I said "he is Angelina Jolie's father" that she had a clue.) -Ernest Borgnine, Powers Boothe, Connie Stevens (pictured below - Don's dad was in Vietnam and Connie was - according to one of the MoH recipients standing with us "every man's fantasy over there"), Mykelti Williamson, John Ratzenberger, Karri Turner(coolest chick EVER - loved her!), Joe Mantegna, Robert Forster, musicians, producers, directors and other Hollywood types all came out to celebrate the lives of this country's greatest heroes.
Don and Connie Stevens
While of course the setting was breathtaking (our table was less than 10 feet from Marine One and Air Force One hung overhead), the cermony itself was filled with laughter, tears, and the kind of genuine, heartfelt American pride that is rarely seen these days. Our Friday night friend George Sakato stood next to Sal Giunta (the youngest MoH recipient in attendance) and in a clear, strong voice led 600 proud Americans in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Azusa Pacific University Men's Chorale serenaded the crowd with beautiful renditions of patriotic songs throughout the event, and when they asked us all to join them in singing "God Bless America" at the end of the night, there was not a dry eye in the house. Politicians, celebrities, military leaders, billionaires, MoH receipients and their families, young soldiers - we all stood and sang with arms out and genuine pride in our voices - no one was worried about appearances or being off-key. I know in the future I will have days where Don is deployed and I am feeling alone and forgotten, and this memory will be the one I turn to to comfort me - Americans proudly celebrating the country they love.
Marine One and Air Force One from our dinner table
Joe Mantegna received the Bob Hope Award for Excellence in Entertainment for his dedication to soldiers and their families through his work with autism (ACT Today for Military Families) and his involvement with the National Memorial Day Concert. Admiral Mike Mullen (former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and his wife Deborah received the Distinguished Citizen Award and it was clear that caring for soldiers and their families is not just part of their job, it is their passion. Former Secretary Robert Gates gave the funniest speech of the evening - with pointed barbs at Washington and fun, heartwarming stories about his former boss, Ronald Reagan. Don and I had the opportunity to meet with him privately for a few seconds before the dinner started, because when one of Don's men - CPL Benjamin Kopp - was buried at Arlington Cemetary in 2009, then Secretary Gates showed up at the ceremony with no pomp and circumstance, didn't give a speech, he just came to show his respects and honor Ben. It meant a great deal to us and to Ben's mother Jill, so we finally had a chance to thank him. It was just one more incredible moment in an evening that almost filled my heart to bursting.
It wasn't all solemnity and ceremony - you haven't lived until you've spent the evening in a hotel bar with a bunch of retired generals, billionaires, celebrities and Medal of Honor recipients singing karaoke and making jokes about the highly intoxicated hotel guest wandering around in her bathrobe. More than the memories though, more than the photos and the stories we will treasure forever, we left this weekend with a new mission - to spread the word about these incredible men.
hanging out with my new friend Karri Turner at the hotel bar
Over the past few weeks as I have been excitedly talking about going to the MoH gala, I was surprised and saddened at how many people had no idea what the Medal of Honor is. While America idolizes drug addicted celebrities, musicians who commit serious crimes, and athletes who behave like spoiled children - the stories of men like Tibor Rubin go untold. He survived a German concentration camp (where he lost his entire family) as a young boy, and was so awed by the American soldiers who liberated the camp that he moved to America and joined the Army, only to be captured during the Korean War and survive 30 months as a POW, and THEN be denied the MoH until 2005 because of blatant anti-semitism in his chain of command. Old age has weakened his body, but from his wheelchair he is still a dynamic, charming, fascinating storyteller and apparently quite a ladies man (he told my husband repeatedly "I'm going to steal your wife before the night is over!"). This man - his love of this country, his dedication to his fellow soldiers, his faith and bravery and character and ability to overcome adversity - his name should be known by every American. If CMOH Foundation has their way - it will be.
One of the Foundation's programs is the Medal of Honor Character Development Program. Created to promote responsible citizenship and examine the ideals of courage and selfless service - the Foundation's goal is to see this program taught in every middle and high school across the country. Through videos, lesson plans, and opportunities for teleconferences and in-person visits with MoH recipients, this program gives students and teachers first hand accounts of some of the most important moments in our history, offered by real heroes - true role models whose stories are touching and inspiring. If you are a teacher or the parent of a school-age child, I ask you to spread the word about this amazing program. To quote Brian Williams, "these are the best Americans I've ever met". Let's share these great Americans with our children and grandchildren through the MoH Character Development Program. A teacher's resource can be found here - this video will give you just a glimpse in to the incredible gift that the CMOH Foundation is offering to the students of this country.
We are changed forever - Don and I. To be in the presence of these men is to see the very best of what this country has to offer, and to understand what its heroes have already given. Help us spread their stories through your schools, invite a MoH recipient to speak at your next community event, watch these videos with your children. Honor them in ways large and small - it will enrich your lives in ways you never thought possible. God Bless these incredible men - and God Bless America.
Medal of Honor